Thursday, 7 February 2013

Fetishizing the Dungeon

The kids over at the rpg site are discussing whether or not the collective output of the "OSR" has been better, or could be better, than that of TSR.

My own feeling is that, whatever the answer, the OSR certainly creates better dungeoneering materials than TSR did, but the opposite side of that coin is that The Dungeon, and particularly The Megadungeon, are fetishized within the OSR to a far greater degree than they ever were during the TSR era. This is especially true of the 2nd edition period, when many of the major campaign setting materials created - Al Qadim, Dark Sun, Planescape, Spelljammer, and so on - specifically and deliberately eschewed The Dungeon as the locus of play.

The obsession with The Dungeon is a source of some mystery to me, as somebody too young to have played 1st edition. Although, equally, it's clear that it comes from a preference for that play style among the early OSR heavyweights, and that this has, in turn, influenced the development of the movement (such as it is). I like dungeons, but it's far from my favourite method of play, which would revolve around city-based and/or wilderness exploration. What excites me most is not the insular dungeon layout, but an open hex map full of interesting areas to explore and range over, and interesting locales to interact with.

In that area it's very hard to say that the OSR has produced much good at all. I could be wrong, but the only products that spring to mind in that regard are Carcosa and Isle of the Unknown, both of which I find pretty uninspired, and the Sin Nomine and Land of Nod stuff - which is good, but nowhere near extensive enough to say that it is in any way challenging of the grand TSR setting creation machine that was at work in the 1990s.

40 comments:

  1. Being a old dude gamer, I never was big into the mega dungeon. I like the idea, but in practice it tends to get boring. Our group is more urban based adventure, conflicts with the occasional dungeon. The dungeon is not the end all of the game. It's a component of the game, but in no way defines the game. We tried to do a mega dungeon campaign, but after a few sessions of search and kill I wanted to do something else.

    That said, I think the OSR has done a great job of producing gaming materials. It doesn't matter if its better than what TSR could have produced or not. For me, its just great that people are sharing what they like and we have a lot to choose from.

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    1. Sure, the productivity of some people has been incredible.

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  2. The TSR setting creation machine put out a lot of setting flavor, sure, but how much gameable setting materials did they actually release? Not much. Mostly, I think, because of the thinking around adventure design at the time, which tended towards linear and story-based. The ideal of anything-goes city or wilderness adventure was not very well served by any iteration of TSR except maybe The Underworld & Wilderness Adventure in the original OD&D box, and even that had nothing to say about cities (assuming that they were all mostly rather limited stronghold affairs).

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    1. It depends what you define as "gameable". Planescape and Spelljammer weren't directly gameable without a lot of work for the DM, but I don't think that's a bad thing: they were more conceptual in nature, and that gave DMs a huge amount of freedom in interpretation. Al Qadim and Dark Sun were not direct hex-crawls, but they were almost there. Don't forget the 2nd edition era also encompassed BECMI, which had its huge Mystara hex map.

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    2. I'd have to agree with Brendan - the sort of stuff produced by the OSR is often directly 'gameable' - whereas some late-era TSR stuff was about as gameable as the Tolkien Encyclopedia or, say, Ratspike. Full of art, ideas, maps etc., but little in the way of things that could be put straight on the table tomorrow evening, rather demanding significant work on the part of the GM while, at the same time, constraining the GM (or creating a feeling of contraint) with their detail.

      I mean, I have the Forgotten Realms Atlas on my shelf - it is a beautiful book full of fantastic maps. Does it help me play (A)D&D? Did it ever? No. It might have helped me visualise the novels, or the pseudo-histories of the setting books...

      In short, I think one of the better parts of the OSR is that it produces stuff that says, 'Hey! This is a game. Play it!' Rather than, 'Hey! This is a fantastically detailed fantasy world. Read about it, and drool over the art."

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  3. To address the main point, the dungeon is attractive to me because of how it represents the extramundane, best communicated by Philotomy's "mythic underworld" concept. The dungeon is not just a sequence of dangers underground, it is an realm with its own phantasmagoric laws that differ (often gradually, as one goes deeper) from the normal world. It is similar to Fairy-land, or dreamland.

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    1. I think that is without doubt the most interesting way of viewing the dungeon, definitely. It's not that I don't like the concept. It's just that it's third place behind urban and wilderness adventures.

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  4. How is the writing for your setting coming along?

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    1. Alright, actually. I am doing a little each day, which experience has taught me is how best to work on such projects. I'm hoping it will be finished (at least in full draft form) by September. I'm deliberately leaving a lot open for users to customize; for instance, for each area of the setting I am coming up with 27 example hexes, but in no particular order, so that a DM running a Yoon-Suin game can arrange them to taste and, preferably, make up his own too.

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    2. I like this approach and it is one I have considered as well for a hex crawl product. The design means that every Yoon-Suin would be unique. Getting a good system for relationships between hexes might be tricky though (or, it is at least something that I haven't figured out a solution to yet that I am happy with).

      Being able to discover rumors about the contents of hexes in particular directions seems important to me so that the player choice of where to go matters (otherwise, any direction has an equal chance of encountering any hex).

      This could also be partly mitigated by some level of prep that laid down a limited number of hexes prior to play, but it seems like even that might run into problems of information flow.

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    3. I gave some thought to coming up with a system for that, but eventually decided the best system might just be to say "Use common sense when arranging hexes".

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    4. Do you have any plans for providing tools to support hex crawls with your setting? Like you, I prefer this game style to dungeons as well but I think the OSR needs more Sin Nomine-esque tools.

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  5. As someone who played first edition D&D and 1st edition AD&D, I can say it was extremely difficult to get players in our neck of the woods (Rochester, NY back then) out of the dungeon and into the city; and the wilderness was never of interest to us.

    Dungeons did get boring after a couple years of just that. That being said, I'd be happy to play in a setting like Hereticworks' Wermspittle, which has room for both above ground urban and subterranean adventures.

    I'd also say that "Stars Without Number" is one of the most creative offerings I've seen in the OSR sandbox context. The tools for sandbox play are outstanding, really fresh and open, and I have tapped them for use in other contemporary games, such as Diaspora.

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    1. I think the Sin Nomine output is definitely my favourite.

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  6. My very first experience with Basic D&D was set in a 'Ghost Town'-like abandoned village. This, and my general love of future and modern settings over medieval ones, lead to my growing disinterested with the dungeon as a setting sometime in the mid-80's.

    Like yourself, I am more partial to outdoor exploration and city based adventuring but I am also a bit of an environment nut and always think, 'Why run in yet another dungeon when they could be swinging on vines from thousand foot trees or swimming through the flooded remains an an ancient coastal city? When was the last time we were surrounded by lava and air so hot it cinges your lungs to breathe? Too long I say!'

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    1. Maybe it's down to something as simple as loving nature and the great outdoors. I do a lot of hiking and camping. So there's a natural appeal in exploring fantasy geography.

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  7. As for city-based stuff - Vornheim is a standout product and one of the best RPG books I've seen, period.

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  8. I think you're basically right about the relative lack of hexcrawl resources. I can think of only a couple others. Rob Conley's stuff is oriented toward wilderness exploration/hexcrawling, and it comes through both in the products and in his blog. I only have one of his published things (Majestic Wilderlands), but the hexcrawl blog posts are good and I'll probably check out Blackmarsh at some point. (I don't actually buy much OSR stuff, and when I do I buy in bursts.)

    Also, ACKS does a good job of setting up a thorough and internally consistent set of procedures for populating a map and placing areas of interest in a wilderness. It also gives you a clear sense of the population and class / level demographics. It's not really modelling any historical period particularly carefully, though -- it errs on the side of internal consistency over simulation. Which is fine, as long as that's what you're looking for.

    But still, altogether that is not much compared to the megadungeon resources. There may be single threads on Dragonsfoot and theRPGSite that have more words and examples of megadungeon advice than what's contained in Rob Conley's whole blog output on hexcrawls or ACKS's rules for populating hexes.

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  9. Wilderness adventuring is for difficult to the DM to narrate, and introduces problems of zoom and scale.

    Going for a half hour hike in the woods, you'll pass hills, small swampy sections, have to cross a stream, encounter a strand of thick brambles... it's hard for a DM to make days of wilderness travel as interesting as real travel.

    On top of that, you have the jarring change in level, from the 10,000 foot view (ticking off travel in hours or days) to zooming in super close when an encounter happens.

    None of these problems are assuaged by hex crawl generators or stocked hexes or anything else that passes for published material. The best things I've seen are the Judge's Guild ready ref sheets. (We need a Vornheim for hex crawling...)

    Dungeons are just plain easier.

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    1. Very good point, although the beauty of the wilderness hex crawl is the fast-forward button: "You arrive three days later in Timbuktu". The interesting thing about it is the locales, not so much what is in-between (which would be interesting too, perhaps, but very difficult to model, as you suggest).

      Without doubt, though, I agree that a proper hex crawling supplement would be worth its weight in gold.

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    2. Although they make a DM's life a lot easier, too many fast-forwards may simply create an "overworld dungeon". There are some locations (rooms) and ways of getting there (doors and corridors).

      I'm not saying this a wrong approach (actually it is the easiest one, and if I weren't deliberately trying to deviate from it fro experimentation's sake, I'd definitely DM wilderness this way); nevertheless, it sort of makes wilderness no different to dungeon adventures - at all.

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    3. I'll confess: I treat the wilderness as an overground dungeon, though the party can strike 'off path' (for more 'wandering monster/random encounter' goodness).

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    4. Yep, I'm with Beedo. I'd love to have some good wilderness adventures but damned if I know how to pull it off yet. I've been slowly crafting my own tools (simple beasts of burden, mini-games for different terrain types) to try and get to where I can even make the abstract wilderness even feel like wilderness. It would probably be good for me to be a player in a DM's game who is good at wilderness, but I have a feeling most people just treat it like an infinite dungeon with slightly differing flavor text/encounters.

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    5. I think a good wilderness adventure has to be all about logistics and survival. That isn't for everybody, but I would love it.

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  10. Fetishizing suggests that it's weird or irrational that they prefer to produce dungeons, but it makes perfect sense.
    a) Old school dungeons as a place to explore instead of a set of linear encounters to a boss fight were a niche that wasn't being served at all.

    b) Settings are a dime-a-dozen. If you were an original old-schooler who really liked any of the old settings (Greyhawk, Mystara, Tekumel, Planescape) you could still be using it, may even have been using it continuously since you started. Otherwise, you could take one from almost any game or fiction.

    c) You can directly start gaming with dungeons, unlike settings which usually require that you at least absorb a lot of material if not put in a lot of work filling in enough detail to actually run an adventure.

    d) GMs can use more than one dungeon in a setting, and can usually just drop it in somewhere. Some non-dungeon material, like Vornheim, is designed that way, but most of the time you need only one setting that you like. If you're not a big player in the market like TSR of old, or WotC and maybe Paizo now, getting people to take up your setting is a huge longshot.

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    1. Agreed. I'd rather read dungeons which I can use with little or no effort customising it for my campaign than anything else.

      Still, I DO believe there is a way of creating wilderness and city adventures very similar to dungeons concerning utility.

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  11. I love dungeons. I love them in games and I love them in stories. My imagination has always been captured by underworld locations.

    In stories, I wanted to know more about Moria and the Lonely Mountain. I love the Conan story "Red Nails" because of the dungeon/city setting. I always wanted to learn more about the dark fortresses in the Silmarillion, like Utumno and Angband. When done well, these locations become characters in their own right and I'm as interested in exploring them and their stories as I am in the characters who are doing the exploring. I have similar affection for city based campaigns.

    Conversely I don't have much affection for most computer game dungeons, like Nethack, because their dungeons have no secret stories to discover. They're just random mazes with random monsters. A good dungeon needs a story.

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  12. Carcosa's the best-formatted wilderness project there is.
    What I would want is something a little less aesthetically "niche" than Carcosa--like Wilderlands--rewritten in the Carcosa format

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    1. I must be the only person in the world who finds Carcosa totally underwhelming. I've only flicked through it, but it just all seems to be "Hex 1413: 13 Protoceratops roaming around a plateau"; "Hex 1414: A Purple Man looking for his lost daughter". Am I missing something?

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    2. Here's what you're missing:

      The INCREDIBLY low usability bar set by every other hexcrawl product before Carcosa.

      The page-a-dax fil-o-fax-like charm of the physical book

      http://dndwithpornstars.blogspot.com/2012/10/using-carcosa-out-of-laziness.html

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  13. It was the limited options available in the dungeon environment (go left or right, open the door or not, etc) that allowed a GM to run an anything goes Braunstien type of game in real time. The original Braunstiens (and Dave's early Blackmoor games) required written orders and individualized victory conditions to work. The first Braunstien game lasted all day and only made it through two turns.

    By restricting the player's options, the GM was able to react to the players actions in real time. Plus the dungeon established the game as the players versus the environment instead of player vs player. These conditions allowed the early GMs to establish the techniques that we all take for granted now. Without dungeons there would be no RPGs.

    Respect the dungeon.

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    1. I do respect it - it's just not my favourite type of game.

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  14. The way I see it, "dungeon" is secondary to the "crawling", which is really the central thing to the kind of play I associate with the OSR, whether you're doing it in a dungeon or in the wilderness or on the Moon or whatever. Any kind of physical environment in which "crawling" takes place becomes a dungeon by definition, and even a non-physical environment such as a network of NPCs or a web of clues. The typical underground dungeon just seems to me to be the default setting for many old school games because it facilitates that kind of play. And the way I understand it, many long running campaigns that start in a dungeon grow out of it more or less organically.

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    1. I don't agree: two elements of the wilderness hex crawl make it fundamentally distinct from dungeon crawling - freedom of movement in all directions (including up and down, to an extent), and freedom of vision in all directions. Yes, a hex crawl is still a crawl, but only in the very reductive sense that anybody exploring anything in a game is 'crawling'.

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    2. It is true only for the macro-part, i.e. on the level of hexes. When it comes to the actual environs and the level of "crawling" it is exactly like a dungeon (there are trees and rocks and other obstacles restricting both movement and perception).

      The macro-level, as you put it, would be about logistics and survival (i.e. resource-management). Most of the decisions are made prior to the expedition (i.e. how much and what kind of equipment are we going to buy and bring along? how are we going to carry them? how encumbered are going to let ourselves become?); the others are situational (which road do we take? how often do we stop for resting? where do we stop?).

      The latter may also include micro-level decisions (i.e. how do we handle a random encounter? do we explore their lair? do we manage to avoid the traps of the forest goblins?); however, they are the same as one would make in a dungeon.

      In conclusion, wilderness exploration is only different from dungeon at the macro-level, which is actually more like a management game: there are resources and you have to find a way to keep as much as possible by going as far as possible.

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    3. Fair enough, though I'd argue that any wilderness travel offers severe limitations to both movement and vision, not to mention complications due to lack of information/disinformation about the environment. Like you say, perhaps expanding the definition of "dungeon crawl" to include any kind of exploration-based play is a bit of a stretch, but I still have the feeling that the preference you express in your OP is essentially about style rather than structure. Does that make sense?

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    4. I guess you're both right, but aren't you effectively just saying any traditional RPGs is ultimately like a dungeon? It seems that you could say "Traveller is only different from dungeoneering at the macro-level" or "Twilight 2000 is only different from dungeoneering at the macro-level" and not be wrong, based on your way of thinking. I mean yes, I suppose it's true that wilderness and space and post-apocalyptic based games are "like a dungeon" in the abstract, but I'm not sure how useful it is to think like that.

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  15. [I am probably going to need to do a whole goddamn blog series on this, noisms...crap]

    Once I got my first Expert set (circa '82) I spent the majority of my formative years playing "out-o-the-dungeon" even after (or especially after) moving from B/X into AD&D. Since rediscovering a passion for B/X and starting up games again (about 4 years ago), I've pretty much ONLY done dungeons, save for a couple one-offs using X1: Isle of Dread.

    The problem isn't the lack of material from the OSR (and there are reasons to debate the apparent lack from that end, though I'd chalk it up to "lack of demand"). Instead, the main issue (I think) is that the B/X rules were mainly created for and are most conducive to dungeon (site-based) exploration. Dungeon sites (with their hidden treasure hoards) tie directly to the advancement scheme, with advancement being the key to opening up new avenues of exploration through increased character effectiveness. Just exploring a hex-grid isn't going to "get it done" unless the hex you happen upon has a dungeon full of goodies to be looted.

    Personally, I've always hated hex-campaigning as just being too damn fiddly (checking to see if you're going the right direction, checking for food, etc.), and I've always had difficulty with the concept of "clearing hexes" (for example, to build a stronghold)...how do you KNOW that you've killed everything in a 6 mile hex (let alone a 24 mile hex)? That's just a lot of damn space to hide wildlife. When my old group DID do a lot of outdoor exploration, it was generally "off-grid:" we had a map with distances (usually in days to travel) we'd roll for wandering monsters and that's about it...towns (which were encountered frequently) were often too small to require any kind of map (and the inn or roadside tavern was our main concern anyway). More important than wilderness exploration was the exploration of the game...where are we going, why are we going there, what's going on around us, etc. And doing that effectively, over a long-term, required a lot of bending and molding of the rule system due to the inability of a game (1st edition AD&D) that was originally built off a dungeon-exploring premise. Maybe 2nd edition did a better job, but I never played 2E more than a couple times, feeling it full of a lot of unnecessary dross (and finding other 1E players felt insulted by the "pruning" of their 1st edition flavor...2E was a tough sell for most "old" players I knew).

    Ugh. Yeah...might have to do a series on this.

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    1. One thing to try in this situation is a pointcrawl instead of a hex crawl. Points of interest are listed along with distances between them (usually along roads or tracks). Pendragon had some good maps written that way.

      There were some good blogs last year on point crawling. I'll try to look them up.

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    2. I like the pointcrawling idea. I'm also planning a series of posts on above-ground mapping.

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